Friday, November 4, 2011

The Best Films I Have Never Seen Before: The Prince and the Showgirl (1957)

The Prince and the Showgirl (1957) ***
Directed by: Laurence Olivier.
Written by: Terence Rattigan based on his play.
Starring: Laurence Olivier (The Regent), Marilyn Monroe (Elsie), Richard Wattis (Northbrook), Jeremy Spenser (King Nicolas), Sybil Thorndike (The Queen Dowager), Jean Kent (Maisie Springfield).

On the surface, you couldn’t pick two actors worse suited to star in a movie together than Laurence Olivier and Marilyn Monroe. He was a serious, Shakespearian actor, used to grand, eloquent dialogue. And she was the famed ditzy blonde, whose seemingly naiveté masked a great actress, oozing with sexuality. While no one is really going to mistake The Prince and the Showgirl for a great film, the two had definite chemistry together, and the film is a good little comedy, where the two play off each other wonderfully. The two apparently clashed on set – with Monroe’s habitual tardiness and fluffed line readings grating on Olivier as both her co-star and her director. He also didn’t like how she showed up with Paula Strasberg to be her acting coach. Strasberg, wife of Lee Strasberg, taught “method” acting, which Olivier despised (while filming Marathon Man, when he found out that Dustin Hoffman stayed up all night before shooting the torture scene to get the right look and feel of being tired Oliver apparently remarked “My dear boy, why don’t you just try acting?”). But the result worked – as even Olivier later admitted.

The movie is a trifling comedy, but an engaging and fun one. Olivier plays the Regent of a small European country in England for the King’s Coronation. He is in charge of his country until his son, the rightful heir to the throne, turns 18, which is coming in the next 18 months. People are worried, because the son has aligned himself with Germany, and when he takes over all of Europe fears war (this is 1911 afterall). The Foreign Office assigns Northbrook (Richard Watts) to keep the strict Regent entertained during his stay. So he takes him to a play, where he is charmed the performance of Elsie (Monroe). So charmed in fact, that she invites her over to the embassy for a late, private supper. Elsie knows this game, but goes along with it anyway.

The movie is a series of comical misunderstandings, and witty banter. You can tell its based on a play, as the structure of the film really does feel like it, even if Olivier and cinematographer Jack Cardiff, do their best to make the film seem less stage bound. The first act of the movie takes places largely in one of the grand rooms of the embassy, with Olivier and Monroe bantering and flirting, first she being offended, and then he being offended, and generally, the evening not working out how anyone planned. When she passes out, he decides he never wants to see her again – but through plot twists that only happen in the movies, she ends up staying with the Regent and his family all weekend. And while at first, he despises her as a “silly American”, gradually she wears him down. Marilyn Monroe can do that to men.

The movie is all witty banter, and the actors make the most of it. I’ve never been quite the fan of Olivier as many are, but the fact that he is a great actor is unquestionable, and he seems to delight in doing fun performances, where he gets to put on goofy accents (I LOVED him in Powell and Pressburger’s 49th Parallel as a French Canadian). Here, he is a stiff upper lipped, stick in the mud, and is quite hilarious throughout. But it’s Monroe who really steals the movie. She is one of those rare actresses who you quite simply cannot take your eyes off of when she’s onscreen – and she is the center of practically every scene here. This another of her great comedic performances.

The plot is ridiculous of course, and how Monroe’s simple wisdom helps solve all the problems is unbelievable in the extreme. But does that really matter? Not really. This is a movie about Olivier and Monroe, and they are both excellent in the film, which makes it a delight. Not a great film, but a fun one.

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